Call me grossly out of touch, but I miss the days when ladies never talked about their masturbatory habits in public. I’m not keen on sexual equality; total mastery sounds more like it to me – but what is the point in trying to outdo men when it comes to obsessing over one’s genitals? Recently, it seems like feminists prove their worth by penning a memoir that hinges around their vajayjay, which is one way to introduce this book by Lena Dunham, the American auteur behind the HBO drama series Girls. This 28yearold is so devoted to exposing her private thoughts for the feminist cause that she may commence with mere navelgazing but she quickly gets down to a full colposcopy.
I don’t know where to start with Not That Kind of Girl. And I probably won’t know where to stop, either. With the back cover, where ‘praise for Lena Dunham’ includes a quote from her father? With the chapter headings, which include ‘My Worst Email, With Footnotes’, ‘I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me’, and the sadly unresolved conundrum, ‘Who Moved My Uterus?’? With the chapter devoted to what the author ate in 2010 (‘1am — Smooth Move laxative tea… 6.30pm — 6oz filet mignon (348 calories)… one bite escargot, 1/4 snail (43 calories?)’? Or with the vast canvas of crapulence itself, which begins, oh so enticingly, with ‘I am twenty years old and I hate myself’ and concludes 261 pages later with a list of acknowledgements even Gwyneth Paltrow clutching an Oscar might think a little gushy:
‘I would like to gratefully acknowledge… the best editor a girl who uses the word “vagina” a lot could ever ask for your friendship and wisdom have been a balm to my soul… I love you, Mack and Coco!… These words would never exist were it not for… the brassy folks I interact with every day on the internet… the New Yorker magazine, Glamour magazine… Zadie Smith…’, and so on, and so on, and so on. Or shall we commence with Caitlin Moran, thirdwave feminism’s onanist in chief? ‘There has never been anyone like Lena Dunham’, Moran explains. ‘To a generation of girls, she is the thing. The very thing. The absolute thing.’
Who are these girls, this generation of girls, for whom Lena Dunham is the absolute thing? The 872,000 viewers who tuned into the first episode of Girls on HBO in the US? Or the vanishingly smaller number that caught Girls on Sky over here? Am I, three years older than Dunham, one of them? (Or perhaps, past 30, I’m a woman?)
I watched Girls. It all seemed a bit reminiscent of the structured reality show, Made In Chelsea. A bunch of girls, talking about boys, and boys, talking about girls, falling out and making up, while not bothering –oh so hilariously – to get an actual job.
Dunham freshens up the mix with her own body (a revelation to many because it is normal sized rather than undernourished), a unique style mantra (of ‘things I might wear if I worked in a bowling alley’ and ‘shorts that are too small for me’), and forensically detailed shag marathons that look so little pleasurable (to the female involved) that you can see why they appeal to aesthetes of the female experience, such as AA Gill.Yet if Random House paid, say, Binky Felstead $3.7million to write an advice book about being a ‘young woman’ for young women who are (presumably) totally mystified as to how to be a young woman, you might assume that someone, somewhere would snort: ‘You have got to be fucking kidding me.’
This has not been the response to Dunham’s memoir. Rather, the argument that has gained currency is that no one would carp about the sum if it were paid to a man. But then, men who command huge advances are rarely paraded about in the press as the voice of just 50 per cent of their generation; they’re laden with the whole caboodle. Here in the UK, the comedian Russell Brand has produced a book equally zeitgeisty and at least twice as absurd as Dunham’s, and no one blames men his age. It has, to date, outsold Dunham’s book 3:1.
If anything, up to this point I think Dunham has been given more, not less, leeway than a man her age could reasonably expect. In the first series of Girls, criticism was levelled at her for not featuring any black characters in her conception of modern Brooklyn, where the series is set. (I probably should have mentioned already that as well as being privately educated, ‘overweight’, in therapy since the age of eight, and liable to wonder things like ‘what would it feel like to be the face of AIDS in the industrialised world?’, ‘our generation’ would also appear to be very white.)
In the second series of Girls, a black character was duly penned into the drama in the form of a man Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is sleeping with. In the episode in which he appears, Dunham’s character realises her new beau votes Republican and dumps him. This may be brilliantly illustrative of the essential vacuity of Hannah Horvath, but if a man had responded to his critics on the issue of race by writing in a hot, black woman for the hero to sleep with and then discard, never to appear again, I doubt he’d have gotten away with it.
This would all be by the by if the book were more insightful than the TV series, but its focus is, if anything, narrower, since there is only one character, and that’s Dunham. It isn’t exactly fresh, either, since it has been chopped up already, incident by incident, for use in Girls. The 28-year-old very rarely refers to anything that does not relate, explicitly, to her own life. There are no big ideas, no calls to action; instead, Dunham explains, her story should be read simply because it is her story.
‘There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman’, she explains in the introduction. ‘There are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed and we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.’
She then demonstrates said gravitas and profundity with observations such as:
‘“When I’m bad”, I announced, “my father sticks a fork in my vagina.”’
‘Joaquin was almost ten years older than me… and possessed a swagger that seemed unearned considering he was wearing a FUCKING FEDORA.’
‘We ate nothing but hummus and drank nothing but beer. We went to his neighbour’s funeral and sat in the back row and got the giggles, sprinted out.’
Dunham mentions her vagina so many times it seems at least as finely nuanced a pen portrait as that of her younger sister.
‘Last summer my vagina started to sting… It was like someone had poured a drop of vinegar inside of me, followed by a sprinkle of baking soda. It bubbled and fizzed… I associate pain in the vagina with weakness and sadness… So what could I be suppressing that was filling me up with pain? Was it ambivalence about sex? Was I ever molested? (If so, that would explain some other things, too.) Was I afraid of where my career might be taking me, and was I running so far ahead of myself that I couldn’t catch up? Do I even know the difference between my urethra and my vagina?’
Who knows? And more importantly… who cares?
Had Not That Kind of Girl been billed as the greatest satire on her generation, it might one day be appreciated as a masterwork. But despite the fact Dunham mentions irony (as in ‘my parents… played tennis ironically’), I’m not sure sentences such as ‘Mike was the first person to go down on me, after a party to benefit Palestine’, ‘Why spend $200 a week on therapy when you can spend $150 once a year on a psychic?’, or ‘Emotions are exhausting to have’, are that way intended.
Lena Dunham must be bright, ambitious and ferociously talented – you don’t get your own HBO show if you’re any sort of dolt – so why doesn’t it come across in this accursed book? Instead the book just consists of what we saw already, on TV (‘It’s all fodder for A and B stories…’); a discussion of the feminist ‘canon’ which mentions three writers – Gloria Steinem (yes), Nora Ephron (uh…) and Helen Gurley Brown (what?). I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry, but, at times, I was howling bored: finishing ‘Hello Mother, Hello Father: Greetings from Fernwood Cove Camp for Girls’ ranks as one of my more serious achievements.
Not a lot happens, really. Dunham gets her period (‘If my father asked whether I was possibly menstruating I screamed in his face so loud his glasses shook’). There is solipsism (‘In the summer your grandfather dies and you’re secretly glad. You have a place to put all your sorrow now.’) There is narcissism (‘When my grandmother died, I was fourteen. I had recently coloured my hair and bought a satin tube top, a transition I considered to be evidence of irreversible maturity.’) Plus gratuitous boasting (‘When I was 17 years old I even had a vegan dinner party that was chronicled in the style section of the New York Times’). There are attempts at humour in questionable taste (‘I’m afraid that I am infertile… And so I will adopt, but I won’t have the sort of beautiful,genetics defying love story that People magazine chronicles. The kid will have undiagnosed fetal alchohol syndrome. He will hate me, and he will nail our dog to a board.’)
Is there method in this madness? Do they laugh at this in America? Will this memoir really shift the 500,000 copies it would take for Random House to break even on that preposterous advance? In an age when publishers routinely reject good manuscripts, multiple times, and then pay minuscule advances, chances are the writer who will, actually, make a decent crack at defining our generation is probably quietly getting on with it and will be appreciated only long after she is dead. What worries me is that paying silly money for Dunham’s memoir is just delaying the publication of something genuinely original, like Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a HalfFormed Thing or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.
And would it be possible, in the meantime, for contemporary feminists to stop sharing stuff any rational person would keep to themselves? Read Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, George goddamn Eliot — feminism did not begin in the era of When Harry Met Sally. At 28, Lena Dunham is clearly very talented, and as a writer she’s just starting out. If she could stop looking to her vagina and start using her brain, and maybe, just maybe, have a think about something other than herself, she might one day write a book that might help us take over the world. And that would be worth reading.